Saturday, August 11, 2007

Packaging Ourselves To Death

I am sitting at The Second Cup [a coffee shop] on Dalhousie Street.
In walks one of these vagrant types. The kind that ask people for spare change all day long.
He goes up to the counter and pours out a few pounds of change and asks the guy to count it and says, “Give me paper money for this.”
The guy counts it, separating it all into the respective trays in the cash register and hands the guy a few bills.
In the meantime, however, the vagrant has asked the female co-worker for a cup of cold water, and so she hands it to him just as he stuffs the wad of bills into his pocket.
He turns to walk away, already guzzling the water. [It’s hot out today].
The distance from the cash register to the exit door is about 15 feet.
Just as he pushed the door open he fired that empty plastic cup into a wastebasket.

I contend, dear reader, that we are packaging ourselves to death.

What I mean by that, is that we, in our Western society, are daily perpetuating numerous consumer habits while maintaining an oblivious attitude toward the never-ending colossal waste of resources these habits represent.
What I mean is that the entire useful life span of the vagrant’s plastic cup… was about 6 or 7 seconds.
Think about it.
Some cup factory produced that cup, [manufactered it] then shipped it here to Second Cup via some Cup-Shipping Outfit, so that it could be handed to some guy who used it for six seconds and then fired it into a non-recyclable garbage bin.
In fact, I am still here at the Second Cup, and I have witnessed not only a second, but a third, fourth, and fifth plastic cup tossed into that bin, by people leaving the place.
Now here’s the thing. Later on, that plastic bag of plastic cups is going to be lifted out of that bin, and tossed into a bigger bin out back, which will then be shipped by a Garbage-Shipping Outfit to some big-normous heap of other bags of plastic cups and assorted crap.
And 100 years from now, long after the vagrant and you and I have ceased to be alive on this planet, that cup, the very one he so nonchalantly tossed into the garbage, that cup will not be much different in composition from what it is right now, after having served its 6-second purpose in life.

If that figure [100 years] sounds like an exaggeration to you, check out this new book by Alan Weisman, called The World Without Us. It’s about humanity’s impact on the planet, and it envisions our Earth, without us.
No human life, in other words.
According to the book, plastic, because it is a polymer [containing polyethylene] “is not biodegradable in any practical time scale.” [p.126].
Eventually it will decompose, yes, but the process for “today’s amount of plastic will take hundreds of thousands of years.” [p.128].
My “100 years” is hence the understatement of its own century!
I’m not saying that we should not give vagrants a cup of cold water.
I’m just saying that we are doing this, and a million other things, very stupidly!

We are garbaging ourselves to death, and it is something we do without the slightest awareness of its long-term effects.
And I am just as bad as the vagrant.
I too, am sitting here with a coffee, given to me in a paper cup which I will fire into that same bin when I leave here.
If I was at all serious about the very habitual consumer-problem I am describing, I would have brought along my own re-usable cup.
I fear it’s time we smartened up.
What are the grandchildren going to be building their cities on?
Gigantic garbage heaps? Our old plastic cups?



May said...

The amount of garbage produced daily by a small family like mine is scary. Like you, I wish that the preservation of the environment was a priority. It will never be unless profit ceases to be the god of our times.

Merisi said...

While living in the USA, I have been asked many a times (even by academics!) how in the world I had managed to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (finding out that I was born in Austria usually elicited this spontaneous outbreak of empathy). Now, reading about "Western society's" daily perpetuating of numerous consumer habits "while maintaining an oblivious attitude toward the never-ending colossal waste of resources" , I feel a little better about being moved a bit more to the East than I formerly felt comfortable with. *smile* Of course, here in Vienna (and in Austria), still too little is being done to avoid wasting the Earth's (and our children's!) precious resourses. I do feel I have to point out though, that you will have a terribly hard time finding coffee being served in paper cups (yes, there is Starbucks in town, but even their outlets here give you a ceramic mug or cup, while they also offer the paper variety). And the glass of water that still comes with your coffee on a silver tablett, is of glass, each and every time. A great many public recources are being poured into an incredibly efficient public transportation system that makes it truly superfluos to take your car into the city. It is a sight to behold, when you see concert goers, dressed up in their best fineries, pouring out of the metro station and street cars, to go the the Goldene Musikvereinssaal to listen to the Vienna Philharmonics or go to the Opera. Recycling is helped along by bins all over town, you never need to put forth too much of an effort to do the right thing.

The vagrant you are talking about would have been offered his water in a real glass, and the glass bottles for mineral water and beer, etc., are being returned to the store and re-used (unfortunately, many PET-bottles are also in use, most of which are not re-used, but recycled only).

I have not seen any paper cups either while travelling in Italy this summer and spring. They also hold on to the real thing. :-)

I recognize that these may be little efforts. Europeans are used to being belittled for their environmental efforts and earnestness, I didn't want them to be swept up in the great "Western society", without pointing out some differences, not forgetting the financial sacrifice they oftentimes make, trying to protect the environment a little better.

cipriano said...

May: I am throwing out a plastic bag of garbage a day. I can't imagine what a "family" is throwing out there.

Merisi, I think that Euope in general is probably doing a bit better than North America in this garbage business.
Over here, I think that most people think we have a whole extra planet we are firing this refuse off into... Europe knows better.
I am happy to hear that you are using glass, and washing reusable cups.
Over here, everythng is still disposable. Throw-awayable.